MY Mad Fat Diary star Sharon Rooney will be in her element at tonight’s Scottish Baftas, but members of her family may want to look away
SHARON Rooney is dreading tonight’s Bafta Scotland awards ceremony. Not because she’s worried she may not win the Best Television Actress gong. “To be nominated, you have won already,” says the 26-year-old Glaswegian. “I’m just so chuffed. For me, that’s already winning.” And it’s not because she doesn’t know what to wear – her mother has sorted her an elegant outfit from Asos and, should Rooney change her mind at the last minute as she is wont to do on sartorial matters, she has a onesie she may just give a red carpet outing. “It’s the temptation of being comfortable. I was joking when I suggested that, but everyone kept saying, ‘Yeah, go on, great idea.’”
No, the reason she’s cringing in anticipation, sticking her fingers in her ears and going la-la-la is because she’s worrying about which clip of her E4 show, My Mad Fat Diary, will be projected up on the mega screen at the Radisson Blu for the world and, more importantly, her mum and dad sitting alongside her, to see.
Fans of the hit show, and there are many, with 1.2 million viewers per episode and a cult following since the British comedy-drama set in the 1990s first aired last year, will know that the possibilities for embarrassment are endless. Honest, funny, heartbreaking, it’s a show about the struggles of teenagers, focusing on Rooney as unlikely heroine Rae, 16 years old, 16 stone, funny, sad, music mad and newly emerged from a psychiatric hospital. Rae is cool but doesn’t know it and spends her days deep in cringe territory. There’s the show where her skirt betrays her mega-period (compounded by the real life incident where Rooney forgot she had it on and walked around town in it), the one where she ends up wedged in a slide at a pool party with her self-harm scars on display, and the one where she masturbates.
“My dad has seen me do things no dad should see their baby girl do. He’s not over it, the masturbation thing. He’s not right yet. That’s the fear of this awards ceremony, you don’t know what clip they’re going to play. So, you’re up for a Bafta! But what if they show me masturbating on a 50ft screen to a room full of people? Of course, it was funny at the time, making it,” she giggles.
“He just won’t talk about it,” she continues, referring to her dad. “The night that episode was on TV we sat down to watch it together as usual, me, my mum and dad – there’s just me, they had me and thought, that’s enough! They’re quite young and cool about things, but it was getting to that bit, so I said, ‘Oh dad, I think that tap upstairs is needing fixed.’ And my mum said, ‘What tap?’ So I winked at her and told him he’d better go upstairs and check it. And he said, ‘Sharon, if the rest of the country is watching this, I am going to watch it too.’ Ha, ha, he lived to regret that decision. He’s been a bit grey ever since. It’s not something you want to see your daughter doing on television. Snigger.”
In person Rooney is much more glam than Rae. Gone are the Britpop T-shirts and leggings and her big melted Malteser eyes sport eyeliner flicks, with her long black Kim Kardashian hair stacked up Audrey Hepburn style. She is also very funny and fast-talking. When she tells me she has tattoos, including a “naughty tattoo”, I ask her what they are exactly, what do they say?
“Oh, you sound just like my mother. ‘What are they Sharon? What have you done? Tell me… tell me…’ hee, hee, hee.”
I still don’t manage to pin her down to a straight answer as she giggles and wriggles and charms. One might be a star and the other might say ‘Believe’. “Noooo, I sound so cheesy,” she laughs and races off in another conversational direction. No wonder she managed to avoid punishment when she was a teenager at Knightswood High School in Glasgow, with her butter-wouldn’t-melt demeanour.
“I was always clowning around,” she says. “But I have an innocent face, doe-eyes, and always knew when to stop talking. I would get everyone else riled up, then kept quiet. I never ever got a punishment exercise the whole time I was at school, although I can name about five times when I should have.”
Not only does Rooney manage to convince as a 16-year-old, she also does such a good Lincolnshire accent that when she guested in Sherlock last New Year, she was praised for her ability to carry off such a convincing Glaswegian one. Always good at accents, she has been rehearsing them from a young age.
“We used to perform shows in the garden for the neighbours and old people round us. I was a child who would say, do you want me to sing for you, dance for you, act out a play? We used to give them tea and coffee and they would watch us perform. Really we were just making a racket.”
Rooney was bitten by the acting bug early, after her aunty took her to see Cinderella at the theatre. “It was the King’s or Pavilion. Anyway, she let me stand on the chair to see and I was loving it and someone said to her about me, ‘She’s in her element’, and my aunty said, ‘Yes, she’s in her element all right.’ I just heard them calling me Ella Mint and thought, ‘One day I’m going to be Ella Mint, a star.’
“I always thought I would do theatre or comedy. I was always trying to entertain in some form, but I never thought I would get on TV. I wasn’t pretty enough or good enough to be on telly. Then suddenly along came My Mad Fat Diary.”
Based on the book My Fat, Mad, Teenage Diary by Rae Earl, who based it on her real life experiences as a teenager living with her mum and their cat in a council house in 1980s Stamford, Lincolnshire, it deals with mental illness, self-harm, body image and teenage sex. Realistic, hard-hitting, yet humorous, it managed to be sweet and sharp at the same time.
Earl lives in Tasmania these days but Rooney is in touch and the pair have become friends, with Rooney calling her for advice on how to play her sometimes.
“We chat about all the little things that are similar about us. It must have been strange for her to have this girl she doesn’t know take on her life and have her life in her hands, so we have got a special connection,” she says. “But when I look back at my own teenage years I wasn’t that cool. I was just the funny one in school. I was lucky to have really cool parents, and really cool friends and a great gran and everything I needed growing up. They made me know I was good enough. But anyone who has been a teenager has days when you go, ‘Ooh, I’ve got nothing, nothing! I’m nothing. Wail!’ And it’s fine to be like that. But in the darkest times you still have to laugh. Crying is messy and it’s a waste of water. I cry all the time. Just the sight of a pug dog will make me cry.”
Rooney confesses surprise at being nominated for the Best Television Actress award, along with Laurie Brett for Waterloo Road and Shirley Henderson for Southcliffe, although Mad Fat had already earned Rooney the same nomination last year and saw her named among 2013’s Bafta breakout stars.
“I’m really chuffed, especially with Mad Fat Diary being my first big job. It’s humbling and really exciting. Before I did this role I did three years of Theatre in Education and nobody in Tesco was bothered. It’s a whole different world since I’ve been in Mad Fat Diary.”
Rooney is close in age to much of her audience. Does this give her any insight as to why it has been such a hit?
“I don’t know,” she says. “But whether you’re a boy or a girl, fat, thin, popular or unpopular, there’s something in it that someone can relate to. Whether it’s the embarrassing things she does or the silly choices, or the more serious mental health side, people go, ‘I have been like that’ or ‘I’m like that now’. It’s very real. We don’t sugarcoat it.”
Playing a teenager with problems means Rooney is inundated with fan mail from teenagers who hope she’d understand their problems.
“Self-harm, depression, it’s closer to home than people think. People didn’t talk about it before whereas now they will say no, I’m not OK. I say if anyone ever wants to talk, listen. Getting teenagers to talk is hard anyway. At first I thought I was responsible for the world. Then I realised, no you’re not. I always say to people the only role model I am for anything is just for being yourself.
“A lot of people see me as Rae, they don’t see Sharon. That’s hard when you get letters from people who are struggling and you don’t know what to tell them. I didn’t know what to say, but now I say seek professional help and don’t be embarrassed. We talk about sexual behaviour and drink, so why not mental health? Don’t be scared. I broke my leg because of drink, when I fell off a chair. That’s way more embarrassing than being depressed.”
Despite the title of the show, Rooney doesn’t want to be included in the whole size debate and prefers to body swerve it as an irrelevance.
“It gets a bit dull doesn’t it, because it’s not just Rae that has issues with size. All of her friends do too. And it’s their problems that are huge and fat. Rae’s problem with her mother is huge and fat. This is a story about a teenager, but she is neither mad nor fat. It’s her diary that’s fat, not her. The whole point of Mad Fat Diary is to see her for who she is, which is smart, funny, wonderful. This girl who is so much more than the packaging on the outside. The only thing that matters is your health and if you’re happy, and if you are, then fine. You can be a memorable person, big or small.
“I hate that ‘love your curves’ stuff. Real women are real women whether that be a size 6 or a size 26, slim or bigger. Brains are all the same. We need to stop making out other people are bad to make us feel better. Your life wouldn’t be better if you had a flat stomach. You’d still have bills and problems.”
After school, where her part-time job in a newsagents saw her poring over the magazine covers – “I thought one day that will be me” – Rooney studied acting at Glasgow Nautical College. She followed this with a BA in acting from Hull University, coincidentally Earl’s alma mater too. “I loved it. I didn’t realise you could do just drama all day, every day. I thought surely college can’t be this much fun. The lecturers were brilliant. One of them – a fantastic woman – when I said I’m not cast-able just said, ‘Of course you are.’ I thought cast-able meant pretty and photogenic and she taught me what it really meant. That was so special.”
After university Rooney did Theatre In Education tours, performing to school kids for three years, and also tried her hand at stand-up with best friend, comedian and actress Anna Devitt.
“Our double act is something we keep saying we are going to go back to. She’s mad at me because she thinks I’m not taking her to the Baftas because I’m taking my mum and dad. But I’m taking her too, ha, ha, ha. There’s always room for your best friend. I do this all the time, surprises. They’re meant to be lovely, but not everyone always thinks they’re lovely. Maybe I should tell her.”
Rooney’s Bafta trip will be a whistle-stop as she’s currently treading the boards of London’s West End in Mamma Mia! director Phyllida Lloyd’s all-women version of Henry IV in the Donmar Warehouse and has to be back on stage tomorrow night.
“I never thought I’d be on the telly, or doing Shakespeare either,” says Rooney. “Everyone was bemused as to why I had been picked to play Lady Percy because I’m not the classic pretty girl. And I’m dyslexic as well. When I got the message from my agent about doing the play, Shakespeare, playing Lady Percy at the Donmar, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, I laughed. I phoned him and said I think there’s been a mistake. I’m a huge fan of Phyllida’s work and I never thought in my professional career that I would do Shakespeare. I thought Shakespeare is not for me, it’s for the pretty girl. But how wrong I was. When you give yourself a chance you totally understand it and it’s been so amazing, especially in Phyllida’s hands with her team of women. It’s made me feel that Shakespeare is for everyone.”
That view is borne out by the number of teenage Mad Fat Diary fans trooping into the Donmar for a dose of Shakespeare and the warm reviews from the critics.
“We’re 14 women of all ages, shapes, sizes and ethnicities. We are such a funny bunch. Karen Dunbar is in the cast too and she is amazing. I’ve never met a human that is so genuine and warm and amazing to be around. I was a huge fan of hers too. I’ve been given the chance to do something I never thought possible.
“Lady Percy is not willowy, she’s not shy and she’s had enough. She’s having to look after the kids, her husband’s not speaking to her and she’s pissed off because they haven’t had sex for a long time. Also, he’s about to go off to war and she doesn’t want him to.
“I’m having so much fun I would play this part forever. And so many cool people have come to see the show. We’ve had Lulu – Lulu! She stood up at the end and clapped, and Emma Thompson was so kind. She’s a huge star and there she was just saying lovely things to us. This job has been so full of wonderful moments I never thought I would have.”
Rooney was also in Two Doors Down last year, a one-off BBC TV comedy with Daniela Nardini and Doon Mackichan about a Hogmanay party gone wrong, and this year she met another of her heroes when she landed a part in Hec McAdam, which stars Peter Mullan and Keith Allen. The film is about a homeless Scot who lives in service stations and Rooney plays a young mother.
“It was a tiny part but I was so happy to play it. It was only me and Peter and it was so much fun because he’s a hero of mine. It’s so strange. I’m just a wee girl from Glasgow who had a big dream and suddenly things are coming true. My bucket list is getting very small now because I keep crossing things off. Meeting Phyllida Lloyd, tick, meeting Olivia Colman, tick, working with Peter Mullan, tick, being on at the West End, tick, and this week, Jackie Clune, who’s in Henry IV and was in Mamma Mia! too, got us to do a bit of Mamma Mia! and I played Sophie. With Phyllida watching. Tick, tick, tick.”
Ask Rooney what’s next for her and the sweetly enigmatic smile is back. “Oh, I don’t know. Well, I do, but I don’t know what I can say. I know I’m really busy. TV mostly, and some of the bits and bobs in the mix. Bits and bobs...” Then she clamps shut the cupid’s bow lips in case she says too much.
If Rooney doesn’t pick up the Bafta Scotland Best TV Actress award tonight she won’t be too upset about not having to walk up to collect her award. No, not on account of her shoes, or even that whole masturbation thing. It’s because she’s hurt her bum.
“Pulled a muscle. When I was running on stage. I just kept going and couldn’t explain or say anything – well, it’s Phyllida Lloyd. Eventually I told her and she said inside or outside? What?! So, I’m Lady Percy, but with a sore butt cheek. It’s funny when I find myself in these situations. I go, wow! This is interesting. I’m still just that wee girl from Glasgow, I’m still Ella Mint. And I hope that never goes.” n
• Winners of the British Academy Scotland Awards 2014 will be announced tonight at The Radisson Blu, Glasgow. Visit www.bafta.org/scotland for tickets and live coverage, or watch on 4oD